The Early History of the Automobile

The Early History of the Automobile, in so far as recreation is concerned, could hardly have afforded a more striking contrast to that of the movies. There were in all in this country some three hundred horseless carriages -- gasoline buggies, electrics, steam cars -- when moving pictures were first thrown on a screen in 1895. When John P. Harris opened his pioneer moving-picture theatre a decade later, there were almost eighty thousand. 1 But though the early period of automobiling coincided so exactly with the years of the nickelodeon madness, the automobile and the movies reached entirely different groups of people.

The movies were for the masses, the automobile for the classes. The distinction could not have been more pronounced. The generalization may be hazarded that none of that vast nickelodeon audience ever even hoped to own or drive a car, while very few of the little band of wealthy automobile owners would have condescended to go to the movies. The first decade of the century witnessed a remarkable expansion in these two new forms of amusement, but it was then impossible to foresee that higher standards of entertainment would soon draw all classes of society into the moving-picture theatres and that the reduced costs of operating an automobile would in time enable all the world to motor. It was not until after 1920 that the movies and motoring could be grouped together as popular forms of recreation in which no class barriers were recognized.

THE RESTRICTION of motoring to the wealthy in the early period of the automobile was not primarily due to the cost of the cars. Although current prices ran as high as $7,000, runabouts could be bought for under $500 and Ford touring-cars for $780 as early as 1911. This was not cheap from the workingman's point of view, but what really made touring such an exclusive prerogative of the rich was the expense of upkeep and operation. The lowest estimate in a magazine series appearing in 1907 was $358 for a six-months' season in which the car-owner drove 3,3710 miles. New tires cost $100, minor parts $96, new parts and work on the engine $70, and gasoline $45. A more typical estimate for an expensive car set the total for a year's operating expenses at $3,628. A number of extras were included in this figure: a cape top and glass front, a speedometer, an exhaust-blown horn, and an allowance ($264) for motoring clothes. Nevertheless it graphically reflected the continual drain for repairs and new tires which featured all pre-war motoring. The year's upkeep of a car appears generally to have come very close in these days to its original cost.

The new "automobility" came in for its full share of jokes and jibes, and also bitter denunciation, as the common man watched the newly rich ride proudly through the gates of society in their Cadillacs, Locomobiles, Packards, and Pierce-Arrows. Life paro, died "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1904:

Half a block, half a block,
Half a block onward,
All in their automobiles,
Rode the Four Hundred.
'Forward!' the owners shout,
'Racing cir!' 'Runabout!'
Into Fifth Avenue
Rode the Four Hundred.

Some three years later, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, gravely warned that "nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile." He declared that to the worker and the farmer the motorist was "a picture of the arrogance of wealth, with all its independence and carelessness."

An expensive amusement not only summed up the general opinion of the automobile in these pioneer years, but appeared to be all that could be expected of it. It was a plaything for the rich. Motoring and automobile racing took a place in the lives of wealthy sportsmen which had formerly been held by coaching; it was regarded as a sport comparable to yachting or riding to hounds. Operating expenses and the inevitability of breakdowns for long shut out any idea of the automobile's more general usefulness, either as a means of transportation in the business and commercial world or as a popular recreation for the people as a whole. As late as 1911 Charles J. Glidden could single out as the primary effect of the advent of the automobile that it had "completely revolutionized the life of well-to-do people."

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